In 2014, ‘The Twin Dilemma’ came at the bottom of Doctor Who Magazine‘s favourite story poll. Why do fans have a hard time with this 1984 story?
It’s always difficult writing for a new Doctor. In the case of ‘The Twin Dilemma’ – which introduced Doctor number six – the author Anthony Steven had to tick a number of boxes. First, he had to establish the persona of the new Doctor. Second, he had to make this persona unpredictable and unstable to the point where the viewer might not like him. Third, he had to explain to Peri (the companion) why the Doctor had changed his face in the first place – and then have her cope with his violent mood-swings. And fourth, he needed an actual plot to fit around the above.
This would be a difficult task even for the most seasoned of writers. In Steven’s case, he was working to a brief that had already been set by the production team, in collaboration with the new Doctor Colin Baker. For ‘The Twin Dilemma,’ they wanted to challenge the viewer; they wanted the Time Lord to be more crotchety and perhaps aggressive. Indeed, in an interview for 1999’s Doctor Who Night, Colin Baker stated that he wanted to play a Doctor who might “cry over the death of a butterfly, while stepping over the bodies of seventeen people.”
In which case, one of ‘The Twin Dilemma’s most controversial scenes – in which a deranged Doctor tries to strangle Peri – makes absolute sense. It’s uncomfortable watching, and it’s meant to be. It’s out of character, and it’s meant to be. Whether it makes for a good Doctor Who scene, however, is up for debate. Certainly, ‘The Twin Dilemma’ has seldom scored highly on the lists of fan favourites, although it performed well during its original broadcast, averaging 7.08 million viewers across its four episodes.
But one thing that can be said about ‘The Twin Dilemma’ is that it is consistent. Steven sticks to the brief that he had been given and presents an unlikeable, unpredictable Doctor – at one point, when he and Peri are cornered in a cave, he turns on his companion and insists that she is the guilty party, in a bid to save his own skin.
Again, it’s not a comfortable moment for viewers, but it does hark back to some of the First Doctor’s darker qualities. For instance, in ‘An Unearthly Child’ there is a scene where the Doctor and his companions are on the run and are trying to help a wounded caveman. At one point, the Doctor slips away and picks up a pointed stone, and it is implied that he is considering killing the caveman so that they can escape. Indeed, his companion Ian grabs his wrist and shouts, “What are you doing?!” only for a surprised Doctor to stammer and, seemingly, invent an excuse about having the caveman draw a map for them.
Moments like these undoubtedly inspired the persona of the Sixth Doctor. Colin Baker himself had suggested tapping into this aspect of the character after viewing some First Doctor episodes.
Another aspect of the production that has been criticised is the Sixth Doctor’s costume, which is introduced in ‘The Twin Dilemma.’ Adhering to the producer John Nathan-Turner’s brief that it should be “totally tasteless,” the newly-regenerated Doctor selects a multi-coloured overcoat and bright yellow trousers from the TARDIS wardrobe – a costume that was (almost) universally disliked, even by Colin Baker. And unfortunately, ‘The Twin Dilemma’ had the difficult task of introducing it to Doctor Who‘s viewers. And for those who didn’t like it, no amount of good writing could have changed their minds.
Moreover, it wasn’t the only outfit that was met with criticism. At one point, another of the story’s characters – a starfighter pilot called Hugo Lang – makes another controversial choice from the TARDIS wardrobe, selecting a bright blue / purple / silver / green / pink sequinned jacket as a replacement for his damaged clothes. Certainly, the outfit is at odds with his more hard-bitten, secret agent-like persona but, in theory, there’s no reason why his character shouldn’t have picked a costume like this.
But combined with the Sixth Doctor’s multi-coloured number, it did lend ‘The Twin Dilemma’ a more pantomimic quality – something that was emphasised by the Sixth Doctor’s over-the-top performance, as he struggled to deal with his traumatic regeneration.
Conversely, the story’s eponymous twins (Romulus and Remus) received criticism for the opposite reason. In contrast to the Sixth Doctor larger-than-life persona, these boys were quieter and more understated. This may have been down to their limited acting experience, and ‘The Twin Dilemma’s director Peter Moffatt had to invest extra time in order to get the most out of their performances.
But on the flip side, one of the things that worked in the twins’ favour was the fact that they were identical, plus their age, as the script required them to be teenagers who were intelligent enough to solve complex mathematical equations.
As such, there are a lot of original ideas at play in ‘The Twin Dilemma,’ even if it falls short of being a fan favourite. It is also worth remembering that it broke new ground at the time; ‘The Twin Dilemma’ was the first new Doctor story to come at the end of a season, broadcasting the week after Peter Davison’s final tale ‘The Caves of Androzani.’ Traditionally, Doctors had regenerated in a season finale, with the new Doctor being introduced several months later. (The only exception to this was the First Doctor’s regeneration, which occurred mid-season.)
‘The Twin Dilemma’ was also bold enough to end with a Doctor that the viewers might not like. The character even acknowledges this fact with his final line, which breaks the fourth wall – “I am the Doctor, whether you like it or not.” And many Doctor Who fans did not like it. They would have to wait several months to see if the Sixth Doctor could change their mind with his first full season.
So whilst ‘The Twin Dilemma’ was far from being an instant classic among fans, this may not have been a bad thing. As Colin Baker noted on The Colin Baker Years VHS tape – perhaps it’s not a good idea to have a new Doctor eclipsed by the greatest story ever written.
How do you feel about ‘The Twin Dilemma’? Does it deserve its poor reputation? Let me know in the comments below.
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